Friday, October 24, 2014

Mental Influence on Age

The New York Times is running an article called "What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" The premise of the article is that physical and mental decay with age may to a certain extent be a matter of one's mind-set, and cites some experiments and studies that seem to suggest so. 

One of the more interesting experiments listed in the article was a group of elderly men that were removed from their normal settings and put into a setting mirroring a younger adult-hood in the 1950's. Mirrors and any references to today were removed--the only photos showed them as younger men. The author writes:
The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time. 
Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (“Anatomy of a Murder,” with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-'50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years. 
At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.
This experiment was recreated in 2010 by the BBC. The results where the same:
The stars were squired via period cars to a country house meticulously retrofitted to 1975, right down to the kitschy wall art. They emerged after a week as apparently rejuvenated as Langer’s septuagenarians in New Hampshire, showing marked improvement on the test measures. One, who had rolled up in a wheelchair, walked out with a cane. Another, who couldn’t even put his socks on unassisted at the start, hosted the final evening’s dinner party, gliding around with purpose and vim. The others walked taller and indeed seemed to look younger. They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.
Another experiment used two groups in a nursing home. The members of the first groups were each given a plant and told they were responsible for its care. They were also given control over their schedules. The second group's members were also each given a plant, but told that staff would care for the plants, and had no control over their schedules. "Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group."

The research indicates that mind-set can even apply to other areas, such as weight-loss (believing that your work is greater exercise than you believe). Read the whole thing.

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